“Can I cook or bake with a Halloween pumpkin? It seems like such a waste not to. If not, what kind should I use instead?”
Pumpkins for carving are bred for size, a uniform shape, overall sturdiness, and a stable, flat bottom—not flavor. In general, they’re fibrous and/or watery when cooked, and their blandness is a disappointing contrast to their rich orange color. And although any uncut pumpkin will last weeks at room temperature, once you carve it, you expose the flesh to bacteria, and the heat of a candle inside encourages the microbes’ growth nicely. So, unfortunately, eating your jack-o’-lantern isn’t a good idea for a number of reasons. You can enjoy the seeds, however (I’ll get to them shortly), and don’t think of that seasonal adornment as waste. It’s compost! Even if you don’t have a handy bin at home, odds are there’s a community composting center somewhere near you.
Along with melons, cucumbers, and gourds, pumpkins are in the Cucurbitaceae family, which happens to have its own website, The Cucurbit Network. As for what kind of pumpkins are good to eat, it helps to know that the word “pumpkin” is merely a term of convenience, as William Woys Weaver notes in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. Pumpkins are actually a type of hard-skinned (winter) squash, he explains. “The common distinction that we make between the two is not based on botanical characteristics as we now understand them.”
For example, Cucurbita moschata, the species that includes the always-dependable butternut, also embraces the similarly buff-colored Dickinson pumpkin. According to the Sustainable Seed Company, its sweet orange flesh is “the pumpkin of choice for Libby’s canned pumpkin.”
And the palm-size Jack Be Little—the Mini-Me of the pumpkin world, introduced in 1986—is likely a long-lost acorn squash cultivar or a cleaned-up version of one, with precedents in some of the 17th-century botanical herbals. In The Compleat Squash, Amy Goldman quotes cucurbitologist Harry Paris: “There’s little doubt in my mind that Jack Be Little is an Acorn squash, even though the overall profile is similar to a flat Pumpkin or even a Scallop squash. The telltale sign is its ten deep radial furrows.”
“JBL tastes like an Acorn,” Goldman adds. “If you want some comfort food along the lines of a flaky baked potato—with a bit of whimsy thrown in—bake one whole, cut a lid and scoop out the seeds, drop in some creamy butter and maple syrup, and you’ve got a splendid breakfast or after-school snack.” Yum.
Two other small jack-o’-lantern pumpkin types that make good eating are the Baby Pam (which weighs about four pounds) and New England Pie (four to six pounds). One recipe that’s great fun is Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good, from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. A more everyday method for dealing with a pumpkin of this size is to cut it into large, manageable chunks, remove the seeds, and toss the pumpkin with olive oil and salt and pepper; then roast until tender and slightly caramelized. You can use the roasted pumpkin in all sorts of ways—mash it and serve as a side dish, for instance, or toss pieces of pumpkin with pasta or farro, or arrange on a salad of bitter or peppery greens with shavings of Parmesan and a generous drizzle of walnut oil or toasted pumpkin-seed oil. (I like the nut oils made by La Tourangelle, a French artisanal company that now also produces oils in California.)
When it comes to other hard-skinned squashes, there’s a whole new world beyond acorn and butternut. All hard-skinned squashes, by the way, are great sources of beta-carotene (which your body converts to vitamin A), vitamins B and C, potassium, iron, and dietary fiber. When shopping, look for hard-skinned squashes that are heavy for their size and with the stem (which is not a handle) attached; a missing or broken stem means easy entry for bacteria and thus a quick route to decay.
Here are a few varieties that you may see on your next visit to the farmers market.
Delicata: This 1894 heirloom has fine-grained sweet flesh and thin edible skin. Roast it whole, cut into half lengthwise, or, if you are really short on time, cut crosswise into rings. This is one winter squash that isn’t a great keeper, so plan to use it within a week or so after buying.
Hubbard: This medium to very large squash, circa 1850, comes in a range of colors—from silvery blue-green to golden or orange—and has rich, dense flesh. An excellent keeping squash, it makes as good a table centerpiece or doorstop as it does a pie filling.
Jarrahdale (Australian pumpkin): This gorgeous green-gray beauty has rock-hard yellow flesh and lots of it. When steamed or roasted, the flesh becomes smooth and creamy, so it’s a great choice for soup or a mash. It’s also surprisingly easy to slice because the skin is thin.
Kabocha: This type of Japanese squash is squat, with dark-green skin and flesh that can be deep red-orange or pale yellow. A wonderful multi-purpose squash, it’s delicious roasted, braised, or simmered, rind and all, Japanese style.
Red Kuri (Orange Hokkaido): This Hubbard-type Japanese squash is shaped like a teardrop and is flamboyant in color. Bake it as you would an acorn squash and fill each half with your favorite whole grain for a meatless main.
About Roasting Pumpkin / Squash Seeds
I incorporated this same information in my blog at janelear.com, but since it seriously rocked my world, I wanted to share it with you here. My friend and former colleague Greg Lofts doesn’t pick over or rinse pumpkin and squash seeds before roasting, which makes life on the culinary front much easier. All the pulpy, stringy bits caramelize and turn sweet and nutty—they are absolutely delicious, in other words. For every two cups seeds with pulp, toss with one tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil and season with coarse salt or perhaps a bit of cumin. Spread the mixture on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast in a preheated 300-degree oven, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until the seeds are crisp and the pulp is caramelized, 50 to 60 minutes.